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A failure of our diplomacy

  • Published at 12:04 am August 29th, 2019
Rohingya
We need to get out of this quagmire on our own terms MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Re-invention is needed to tackle the Rohingya crisis

Our Rohingya policy is getting us nowhere -- that is the hard truth.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place, two years after the Myanmar authorities compelled their citizens to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Two years on, there is little sign of any resolution of the crisis. Our diplomacy clearly has been unable to convince the world -- and that fundamentally means the region of which Bangladesh is a part and also the West, which has for good reason been interested in the welfare of the refugees -- that the Rohingya need to go back home.

Well, the million-plus Rohingya who have seemingly settled down in Bangladesh’s coastal region in the south-east are in little mood to go home. They would like to be accorded full, unadulterated citizenship in Myanmar before they can begin the long trek back home. That concern is understandable. But the bigger concern is somewhere else. It is that, by imposing such conditions, the Rohingya are in effect informing the global community that they are not about to return to their country anytime soon.

That will make Aung San Suu Kyi and her cohorts happy.

Will it all blow over?

Place the blame for the adoption of such an attitude on the part of the refugees on the Myanmar regime, which persists in describing the Rohingya as foreigners, indeed as Bangalis. There has been little sign that Naypyidaw is sincere about the return of the refugees. Indeed, it plainly believes the crisis will blow over. But the crisis goes on, and each day assumes graver dimensions, so much so that it is Bangladesh and its people who look about to become hostage to the situation.

Or perhaps they have already?

But, of course, no one is suggesting that the Rohingya should be sent back to Myanmar forcibly. Every person fleeing persecution in his/her country or anywhere else in the world deserves to be assured of safety. From such a perspective, the Rohingya are secure in their camps in Bangladesh. The trouble, though, is that they have kept coming and indeed more of them could be making their way into Bangladesh.

With the ground realities as difficult as they are at present, one does not require much imagination to envisage a situation where the Rohingya, for want of a meaningful solution to their problems, will turn into an entrenched foreign ethnic group in Bangladesh. Images of the followers of the Dalai Lama taking refuge in Dharamsala in India come to mind, and yet there are the differences between the refugees from Rakhine state and those from Tibet. The differences should be obvious, if they are not already.

The dilemma for Bangladesh is not that the Rohingya are here. It is in the worrying picture of the refugees fast turning into a mass of people whose presence could kindle problems for Bangladesh’s citizens both in the coastal regions and across the country. There is the matter of the ecology, for one. Woodlands in the region in Kutupalong and around it have already been subjected to devastation. With the number of Rohingya increasing at a pace beyond normal, the threat to the environment becomes that much more acute.

And then there is the spectre of a far graver problem if the Rohingya are not persuaded to go back home, or if the Myanmar regime gets away with its policy of ethnic cleansing. Just how seriously Bangladesh’s politics could find itself in the Rohingya straitjacket was made obvious the other day when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of the refugees managed to organize a rally to spell out their position on the issue.

A basic question here relates to how the Rohingya, in a way that is as unprecedented as it is bizarre, were able to organize the rally with the Bangladesh authorities absolutely in the dark about it. One would like to know why no foreknowledge of what the Rohingya were planning happened to be there. There is little or no precedent for refugees taking shelter in foreign territory to transform themselves into a political force, to take it upon themselves to inform the host government that they will not go home unless certain preconditions are fulfilled.

It is the responsibility of host governments to ensure that refugees in their territories are taken care of through provisions of food, shelter and other basic amenities. It is also the duty of host governments to make certain that refugees do not abuse the facilities they have been provided with through undermining their authority.

We in Bangladesh are today caught in a bind. The Rohingya will not go home. The Myanmar regime will not take them home.

And NGOs, specifically the internationally reputed ones, have focused more on the circumstances in which the Rohingya lead their lives in the camps in Bangladesh than in complementing the efforts of the Bangladesh authorities towards arriving at a solution to the problem.

A principal characteristic of NGO behaviour has to do with the funds NGOs are recipient of -- and they are inclusive of the money earmarked for the rehabilitation of those affected as well as the salaries and wages of their officials and workers. Refugee crises in modern times are pretty lucrative affairs. That is a truth which certainly is playing out in the Rohingya camps. 

A few days ago, not a single Rohingya turned up at the camps set up for them to register for return to Myanmar.

Why go back?

An element of fear and unwillingness was surely part of such behaviour, but more importantly, there is the rather intriguing question of the factors that might have been at work to hold the Rohingya back from responding to calls for appearances at the camps.

Add to that the murder of a young man, a figure within the student body of Bangladesh’s ruling party, allegedly by the Rohingya. In recent months, stories of violence involving the Rohingya have come to light. In the areas where they have been encamped, it is the local population which could now be sliding into silence from fear of an assertive Rohingya refugee community making its presence felt.

So where does all of this place Bangladesh’s diplomacy?

The Chinese and the Russians and the Indians have politely and meaningfully, and disturbingly for us, maintained their silence. Myanmar is a developing, multi-faceted market for them as much as they are a source of support for Myanmar. National self-interest guides each of these countries, or you could say realpolitik is at work. For Bangladesh, therefore, it is proof that its diplomacy on the Rohingya issue has not quite worked.

Indeed, when in the early stages of the crisis, policy-makers in Bangladesh acceded to the Myanmar government’s desire of not referring to the Rohingya as Rohingya, it was fairly clear which way the wind would blow. Shegun Bagicha was patently unwilling to ruffle Myanmar sensitivities by calling a spade what it really was. The repercussions of such politesse are here before us today.

The Bangladesh government needs to reshape its position on the Rohingya issue through assertive diplomacy. The old clichés will not work. An imaginative approach to the issue, on an intellectual base, which has as its premise the enlightened self-interest of the country, is now an imperative.

Where traditional diplomacy has failed to move the world on the Rohingya issue, it might not be a bad idea for the government to mull the appointment of a negotiator -- call him/her a special envoy of the government of Bangladesh -- who in turn could put a task force in place to spell out the strategy required to put the crisis behind the country.

Within the strategy should be realistically defined policies the special envoy could articulate, with vigour and dynamism, before the UN, the Commonwealth, the OIC, BIMSTEC, and certainly ASEAN.

We need to get out of this quagmire, essentially on our terms. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.